Bengalis are known to be a quintessentially fish and meat-loving state. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, even Brahmins in Bengal are non-vegetarians. This is in sharp contrast to the orthodox upper caste Hindu’s visceral aversion to meat. The reason is that Bengal, since ancient times, has been renowned for its extraordinarily fertile agricultural land and production of paddy. Being a riverine state, it has an inexhaustible resource of different varieties of fish. That is why rice and fish have been the staple food for the Bengalis.
But what may surprise many people is that Bengal has a rich tradition of vegetarian food.
The great seer Chaitanya Mahaprabhu founded Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Chaitanya has a significant influence on the cultural legacy in Bengal including on its gastronomic preferences.
The Gaudiya Vaishnavas follow a Lacto vegetarian diet. They abstain from consumption of all types of animal flesh, fish, eggs, onions and garlic.
Influenced by Chaitanya, many of the respectable Bengalis did not consume non-vegetarian food. Even the Shaktas consumed mutton and fish only on specific occasions.
The most important reason for the development of Vegetarian Bengali cuisine is the presence of widows in Bengali household. The widows wore white dress and kanti-mala. She maintained a very strict standard of cleanliness and consumed Satvik food. She would get up by Brahma-muhurta, and take bath.
The widow also kept fast on Ekadashi. The Widows did not consume onion and garlic, meat and fish and led a pure and fugal life. These culinary limitations of widows inadvertently contributed to the development of a rich vegetarian cuisine in Bengal. Gifted cooks amongst widows contributed greatly to the range and originality of Bengali vegetarian dishes.
“Chakka, “dalna”. “ghanta”, “chhachari”, “chhechra”, “chhechki” and “labra” are some of the treasured vegetarian dishes gifted by Bengali widows. Later many of these dishes have been adapted by including non-vegetarian ingredients like shrimp or fish heads.
Upper caste Bengali widows would also cook a vegetarian spread for offering to Shaalgraam Shilaa, a small stone form of Narayana.
Since Widows lived like Vaishnava saints in midst of Bengali family, the also inculcated moral and religious values among the young people. Widowed grandmother would tell stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata to youngsters.
Since Cow was considered to be a mother curdling the milk to make cottage cheese was considered improper among Hindus.
With the advent of Portuguese, the making of cottage cheese became commonplace in Bengal. This spurred the development of sweet based on cottage cheese. Also, Channa or cottage cheese was added to vegetarian dishes to make them more palatable and wholesome. Channar dalna is one such dish.
The Portuguese also brought many novel vegetables the most important of which is potatoes.
The opium trade inadvertently gave rise to vegetarian dishes based on opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) seed, locally known as Posto.
Soon after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British discovered the huge market for illegal opium in China. The British converted a huge tract of agricultural lands in Bengal into poppy cultivation fields and for cultivating indigo. This led to famine in Bengal.
The British left enormous amounts of dried out poppy-seed, as by product of opium cultivation.
The hungry farmer’s wife soon found that ground poppy-seeds, blended with mustard oil could be used as an accompaniment with rice. Hence was born an entire vegetarian culinary repertoire based on poppy-seeds.
Thus we see that Bengal has a huge array of delectable vegetarian food along with its famed non-vegetarian dishes.